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How Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne is changing the narrative of his NBA career

The former first-round draft pick is embracing the peaks and valleys of his pro basketball journey.
Credit: AP
Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne dribbles the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Bucks 118-108. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne will be the first to tell you his pro basketball journey has not been easy to navigate. 

A few years ago, Payne was laying on a hospital bed in tears thinking his career was over.

“You can’t go through what he’s been through and not have a level of belief in yourself that no one can touch,” Suns Head Coach Monty Williams said of Payne. “He may have days that it may dip based on how he plays but the foundational confidence that he has is pretty set based on what he’s been through.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder selected the Murray State product 14th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Williams was an assistant coach with the Thunder during Payne’s rookie season. 

Payne dealt with various injuries, underwent foot surgery, and struggled to carve out a role with consistent playing time during his first few NBA seasons. He was known for his pregame handshakes rather than his production on the floor. 

After Oklahoma, Payne had stops in Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto before spending time playing in China and the NBA G-League.

“To be a high draft pick and go through that experience and then be out of the league and then get back, you have to have a belief in yourself and a great support system,” Williams said. “That’s one of the things that we admire about him: he’s a pretty confident young man. I have the experience of being with him when he first got into the NBA when we were in OKC, so I’ve seen the growth. But I’ve also seen him harness that confidence into being more productive on the floor and I’m sure it comes from him but also his family, he’s got a pretty cool support system back in Memphis.”

One year after being named head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Monty Williams gave the Memphis native a call. 

When the Suns signed Payne in June 2020, he hadn’t played in an NBA game in 16 months. When the NBA resumed its season in the Orlando bubble, Payne looked re-energized. 

That’s when the Suns re-introduced themselves to fans outside of Phoenix as an exciting, fun-to-watch team with promise under its first-year head coach.

One year after getting the call from coach Williams to make his NBA comeback, Payne was preparing to play in the NBA Finals.

“It’s amazing, actually. I ain’t think I would be back especially not in this position. And to get to be myself doing it? It’s a blessing,” Payne said. “Because what I love doing, it wasn’t attractive. Now I get to be myself, go out there and be Cam Payne and whatever comes with it, is all good. And I love it. I love it. Just wish we could keep it going and try to win a championship while doing it.”

“He went through more than I’d ever known. I could’ve thought he just went to OKC and Chicago but going to Toronto, G-League and then going overseas in China, all that stuff, and to find his way back… It’s unbelievable,” Suns teammate Mikal Bridges said. ”I know he worked so hard to get here and you can tell he’s not trying to slow down either.”

Phoenix fell short of winning its first championship in 2021, but the Suns began another historic run just 102 days after watching green confetti fall at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. 

After a 1-3 start to the 2021-2022 season, the Suns went on a franchise-record 18-game winning streak that propelled them to the top of the Western Conference standings.

“It was a lot of fun. It’s just nice to see us come together as a team, wins or losses,” Payne said of the winning streak. “It was just fun to crack that 18. It’s kind of a thing here in the Valley: can we get over the hump? It’s just about getting over that hump.”

The Golden State Warriors snapped Phoenix’s winning streak in early December, only to spend the rest of the month jockeying with the Suns for the best record in the NBA. 

Now the Suns are working to get over the biggest hump of all: winning their first NBA Title.

In August 2021, the Suns rewarded Payne with a three-year, $19 million deal. He’s played an integral role in the Suns’ success since their surprising 8-0 performance in the NBA bubble. Payne’s infectious energy and humility are among the qualities those closest to him admire most.

“He brings energy all the time, no matter what,” Bridges said. “He’s wild, man, but we need him. He’s our guy. He plays really hard and knows what to do.”

Payne is embracing his role in Phoenix, even nicknaming himself “The Haboob” as a nod to the local, summertime weather phenomena. 

Payne says he’s blessed when he considers how far he’s come and the position he’s in now with one of the best teams in the NBA.

“I know coming into the game I get a lot of cheering and things like that so obviously I’m kind of a thing around here,” Payne said. “But I still keep my humbleness. Come out there every night and try to play hard.”

Through the first 33 games of the 2021-2022 season, Payne is averaging 10.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 20.5 minutes per game off the bench for the Suns.

The Suns open a five-game road trip in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 11. Their next home game will be on Saturday, Jan. 22, when they host the Indiana Pacers for a 7 p.m. tipoff.

Follow the conversation with Lina Washington on Twitter: @LWashingtonTV. If you have a sports story idea, e-mail Lina at LWashington@12News.com

Watch the full interview below: 


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